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I’m back in Sri Lanka for the second time this year. This time I’m working with the official tourism board after being invited on an adventure across the country for 10 days. I also was lucky enough to have four friends join me on the journey.

Today we visited two starkly different locations, both of which are prime spots to spot some elephants. The first spot is Pinawalla Elephant Sanctuary. This spot was made Instagram famous thanks to Jack Morris from @doyoutravel. However, the sanctuary has a large amount of negative publicity because the images portrayed by people like Jack Morris and other media and influencers don’t give the whole picture.

I won’t go into detail as this is a photoblog not an opinion piece. I am waking up in 6 hours and still have a lot of work to do so I’ll keep this short. You guys know I tell it how I see it whether I’m on a press trip, independent trip or anything in between.

Pinawalla Elephant Sanctuary is not a wild, open free environment for elephants. The elephants are in contact with humans on many occasions throughout the day. However, after a grilling of our poor guide, I am led to believe that the majority of the elephants here were brought to Pinawalla for a reason. They were either injured, orphaned or born in captivity at Pinawalla or elsewhere. The theory is that once in contact with humans for a significant period it is too hard or impossible for a successful return to the wild. For those born in captivity it is not seen as an option.

So Pinawalla attempts to fill the void. The sanctuary aims to be a safe place for elephants to live. However, despite having intentions to provide a good standard of living for the elephants they do fall a little short in a few areas, in my opinion. May I add I am no expert on elephants or any topic now that I think about it! I am a critical thinker, not afraid to ask the stinger questions and take the photos that show how things are.

Pinawalla organizes feeding of fruit tourists to the animals while the animals are chained in some capacity. (Chains may be undone but ready to be applied if there is an incident). The elephants walk through the city street from the water source to their living area. A number of the elephants are chained in different ways and at different times due to aggression and safety issues. The elephants are directed and pushed at times with a stick with a sharp metal edge on one end.

Having animals that weigh over two tonnes and can be aggressive is  not an easy situation to manage. I think Pinawalla has many great systems in place but also needs to rethink a number of the activities they are currently running such as the hand-feeding from tourists. These activities increase the risk of an incident and mean the elephants are chained. There is no purpose to this feeding other than to please tourists.

The intention of Pinawalla is pure and good. I truly believe that. I think they will continue to develop better practices as they learn and improve. They are currently constructing a water source near the living quarters, alternate walking routes and other infrastructure to limit the need for chains and decrease the risk of an incident.

After reading many one-sided blogs both promoting and denouncing Pinawalla, my final conclusion is the following:

  • Pinawalla is an elephant sanctuary, which is making great strides towards being a safe place for elephants.
  • The sanctuary has good intentions for the elephants but needs to eliminate certain practices such as feeding and bathing in spots that are good for tourist viewing.
  • Well-planned infrastructure in the future is needed to eliminate the use or at least decrease the use of chains even to protect the animals from each other in aggressive periods.
  • Despite the relationship, the trainers (Sri Lanka has a strong tradition and beliefs regarding this) have with the elephants they should refrain from riding them to set a ‘wild’ precedent throughout the sanctuary.
  • The sanctuary should aim to be a place where elephants can roam freely, in their designated space without having to be escorted to water sources or to be hand fed by tourists. The emphasis should be on elephants experience, not tourist experience. It is currently focused on both.

If you are a blogger, influencer or a tourist and take one look and give a disapproval, I’m afraid you may not be considering the logistical nightmare that is dealing with huge animals from different backgrounds, upbringings, and nature. This isn’t a matter of nursing an in injured dog back to health and finding him a home. The animals can be aggressive towards each other and humans. These are not wild elephants, although it would be great to have them treated as close to ‘natural’ as possible. They are getting there.

I went into way too much detail there and still left out many facts and information I received today and now I will only sleep for four hours if I’m lucky. Cue the photos for what is meant to be a photoblog.

After Pinawalla we drove to Kawdulla National Park. Here the elephants are free to roam anywhere they please. There are no fences and the animals were born in the wild, raised in the wild and there is no human contact.

The only human contact the elephants have to deal with is the vast number of safari jeeps watching them. However, despite a few quick dashes across the road the elephants seemed to go on as business per usual. No-one is allowed out of the jeeps and it is purely an observation of the beautiful elephants. The jeeps didn’t chase the elephants or speed around. It was very low-key.

We drove through the jungle in our open-top jeep on the way to a huge watering hole, where we came across over 200 elephants. There were tuskers (elephants don’t all have big tusks), babies and families all over the plains. It was truly magical and one of the highlights of my year. It was a moment I could never have imagined and this adventure could end now… I am satisfied.

These are some shots I snapped from the jeep on my 70-200 Sony F4 lens.

Sharanya Iyer

Wednesday 4th of October 2017

Thank you for saying it like it is, Jackson! I admire you calling out the atrocities that are sometimes meted out to these elephants at these so called 'sanctuaries and havens of safety' Those sticks with the sharp end physically pain me, when I look at them. Stunning photos as always, but I'm glad you haven't glamorized the entire thing.